Poetry Readings: respect your audience

Even if there’s only three of them, or four if you counted the Jack Russell.

The best way of drumming up sales for poetry books and pamphlets or chapbooks at the moment is through poetry readings. Hearing a poem read brings out the rhythm and musicality that aren’t always apparent from reading a poem silently from the page. Moreover those audience members who do buy poetry books at the reading are more likely to read their purchased books while the poet’s voice is still fresh in the purchaser’s mind. Poetry books bought online or through shops can often end up on the ‘to read’ pile and gather dust.

Open mic events are the best way to start out giving poetry readings. There are usually several performers so less pressure on each individual (it can be reassuring for the audience to know that each poet only has a limited slot too). They’re often fairly informal so poets get chance to get feedback from the audience rather than just a round of polite applause at the end of the reading.

Here’s some tips to make performing at an Open Mic Poetry event work for you:

  • Try and attend as an audience member first to get a feel for how the evening works. Some open mic events are open to a range of poetry, others more narrow in scope. Get a feel for what type of poetry is more appreciated;
  • Check the ratio of audience to performers – a group of poets all waiting their turn to read aren’t likely to be as responsive to a mixed audience of listeners and performers;
  • Find out how much advance notice is needed if you want to read at the event – do you arrive early on the night or do you have to sign up in advance?
  • Find out how long each slot is – don’t rely on measuring performance times on the night as there are invariably performers who over-run;
  • Find out how the organisers deal with book sales and whether individual performers can bring publicity material: some events may only want to display publicity for the event itself and not individual performers;
  • Do spread the word about the open mic event if you know in advance you’ll be reading , but check with the organisers before doing any publicity as you will not be the only performer and they will want the whole event publicised, not just your reading;
  • Select your poems in advance and check they fit the permitted slot, including short introductions to each poem (as general rule make sure your introduction is shorter than the poem). There are more tips here on how to choose poems for a reading;
  • Rehearse – recording and playing back your readings is a good way of doing this;
  • Arrive early, even if you’ve already put your name down in advance, and introduce yourself to the organisers and whoever’s introducing each performer;
  • Try and look at the audience during your introductions. If you’re reading from a page, it can be difficult to look up during your reading as well, but your introductions should reach out and engage the audience otherwise they will switch off because you appear to be reading to yourself;
  • Try and listen to feedback. Don’t react immediately but make a note and focus on the constructive comments. You won’t please everyone and don’t let an audience member write your poem for you, but if someone’s taken the trouble to single you out afterwards to comment directly, then that comment’s worth considering;
  • Don’t rush home as soon as you’ve finished your performance. You are unlikely to be invited back. Unless you were the last performer of the night, then some of the audience will have listened to your performance while waiting their turn so it’s only a courtesy to listen to theirs.

While you’re in the audience:

  • Resist the temptation to rehearse your reading; even silently. Other performers will know you’re not paying attention to them and will not bother paying attention when it’s your turn;
  • Resist noisy distractions, put your phone on silent and save the crunchy nibbles for the interval or while one performer is leaving the stage and the next is preparing to start;
  • Friends may be great morale support but if your friend isn’t a fan of poetry, you won’t relax knowing they’re not enjoying themselves;
  • Don’t heckle: you’re inviting people to heckle you;
  • Don’t assume a small audience is a reflection of the quality of the performances. It may just be that the local football team’s got an important derby match or 1 Direction are appearing at the local stadium or the organisers aren’t too good at publicity.

Some organisers are sloppy but that doesn’t give you the excuse to be less than professional. The poet who turns up late, forgets their reading glasses, imbibes too much wine, shuffles onstage with a small pile of slim volumes and then asks “What shall I read?”, who refuses to use the microphone (even if you’ve a booming bass voice, use the microphone as it’s usually there for the benefit of sound loop users not for ensuring the back row can hear you) or who sits down behind a table to read will be the poet who won’t sell any books that evening.

Sloppy organisation led to me being part of poetry reading where the audience were three people and a Jack Russell. But we were all paid the fee agreed in advance, read as agreed and the Jack Russell remained asleep throughout. For the non canine members of the audience, it was one of the most memorable readings they’d attended.

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One Response to “Poetry Readings: respect your audience”

  1. garylongden Says:

    Some good advice there. My observation is that quality will out. A good performer will perform well irrespective of the size of the audience. There are no “bad” audiences, just indifferent performers.


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